India’s Supreme Court has dismissed a petition calling for President Droupadi Murmu to inaugurate the parliament's new building instead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Mr Modi is expected to inaugurate India’s new state-of-the-art parliament building on May 28, but the decision has sparked controversy with nearly 20 opposition parties expected to boycott the ceremony, branding it as an “assault on democracy”.
In a petition to the Supreme Court, lawyer Jaya Sukin argued that the President, as head of the legislature, should inaugurate the new parliament and that Mr Modi’s government was “humiliating” Ms Murmu by failing to even invite her to the ceremony.
A bench comprising of Justices J K Maheshwari and P S Narasimha refused to entertain the petition and asked for it to be withdrawn.
There is no protocol that says that the president is required to inaugurate the Parliament building.
India's president is a ceremonial head of the country with no real powers, but is regarded as superior to every official under administrative protocols and is considered the first citizen of India.
Nineteen opposition parties including the Indian National Congress, Aam Aadmi Party and Trinamool Congress issued a statement on Thursday accusing Mr Modi of “completely sidelining” President Murmu and that the move was not only “a grave insult, but a direct assault on democracy”.
The statement added: “The Prime Minister has decided to inaugurate the new parliament building without her.
“This undignified act insults the high office of President and violates the letter and spirit of the Constitution.”
Senior opposition figures also spoke out against the Modi government's actions.
“Mr Modi, Parliament is the temple of democracy established by the people.
“The office of the President is the first part of Parliament. The arrogance of your government has destroyed the parliamentary system,” Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said in a tweet.
“He is a narcissist prime minister. This a constitutional crisis: the President is the highest citizen. He doesn’t respect her. In every project it is his face, his picture,” Sudip Raha, spokesperson of Trinamool Congress, the ruling party in West Bengal state, told The National.
“He is spending 12,000 crore rupees [$1.45 billion] on this project when people of India are not getting funds for building houses, the voters are suffering to get a roof over their head.”
Asaduddin Owaisi, president of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen party in the southern state of Telangana, said the government's planned action “deals a blow to the constitutionally established separation of powers of the Legislature, Executive and the Judiciary”.
“From the beginning, we have been saying that the Prime Minister should not have laid the foundation stone for the new Parliament.
“We opposed his unveiling of the national emblem on the Parliament House on the same grounds of separation of powers. Today too we say the Prime Minister should not inaugurate as this action by him violates the theory of separation of powers.
Mr Modi laid the foundation stone for the new parliament building in December 2020, saying it was a “landmark opportunity to build a people’s parliament for the first time after Independence”.
The building, a triangular structure spread across 65,000 square metres, will replace the circular parliament house built 94 years ago by British colonial rulers.
Mr Modi’s government plans to turn the old building into a museum.
The government has said that the new parliament with its unique shape will offer optimal utilisation of space and features larger halls, a modern library, redeveloped offices and committee rooms with state-of-art facilities.
The chamber of the Lok Sabha, the 545-seat lower house of India's Parliament, will have a capacity for up to 888 seats, while Rajya Sabha – the upper house – will have a capacity for 384 seats as compared with 250 now.
The new parliament is a part of Mr Modi’s $2.8 billion Central Vista Redevelopment Project to replace the buildings in Delhi that once served as the seat of power for British rulers.
The project has been criticised by opposition parties, historians, architects and even former bureaucrats who say it is an attempt to erase institutional memories and historical buildings.
It includes a new multi-billion-dollar Prime Minister's residence.
The government has been criticised over the high cost of the project and accused of misplaced priorities after it was launched during the Covid-19 pandemic at a time when people were struggling to get oxygen cylinders and admission to overcrowded hospitals.